What if my husband is unwilling to work on our marriage?

A woman sitting at the table with her back to another man.

Every marriage needs work. But what happens when a relationship goes flat and one partner is not willing to work on it? Is there hope for that marriage?

Yes, and here’s why.

One person can change the relationship!

Change happens when one partner starts doing something differently.

One reader told me…

“Chuck, we are trapped in that cycle of blaming and defensiveness you talk about. I feel stuck, and powerless, and it hurts because my partner doesn’t want to work on our relationship? I feel so alone.”

That’s really hard and can feel hopeless.

But if you will change the way you communciate, the dynamic of the relationship will change, and something will shift.

And your partner will have to change. Not by force, but willingly.

My experience tells me that at least he will become curious, and he’ll probably end up wanting to work with you toward change.

It’s a principle of the universe. If you change, your partner will have to respond differently.

It’s like when you change your tennis serve, your opponent has to change their response.

Quantum physics claims that, in our interconnected universe, anything you do anywhere impacts everything, everywhere. This is no truer than in relationships.

So here are some steps that are in your power to do, no matter how hurt or powerless you feel.

1. Listen before talking

Helen LaKelly Hunt said in an interview that on average we hear about 13% of what is being said in a conversation.

I believe that. Because as soon as my wife says something that triggers my defenses, I start ‘reloading”. At that point, I’m not listening to her. I’m listening to me! And I doubt if I even hear 13%!

So start listening to your partner.

How do I do that?

Mirror rather than react.

Use the powerful Imago Dialogue sentence stems to regulate your emotions, listen to every sentence, observe every inflection, and be attuned to every non-verbal message.

‘What I hear you saying is’¦

‘Did I get it?’

‘Is there more about that?’

Mirror rather than react.


Validate rather than shame.

Be the one who lets go of the need to “be right”.

Validation says…

‘While I may see it differently, you make sense; and what makes sense is’¦’

You don’t have to agree with your partner, but you do have to see that his reality is valid.

“If 6 turns out to be 9, I don’t mind. I don’t mind.” – Jimi Hendrix

If you are looking down at the number 6 and your partner who is across from you is swearing that it’s a 9, you can argue forever about “who’s right”.

Validation says even though I hold my own reality and won’t deny it, I can also see from your perspective why you say it’s a 9. Though I may see it differently, you make sense.


Empathize rather than villainize.

When you mirror rather than react, validate rather than shame, then you can actually empathize with how your partner feels. This is where your relationship is transformed.

‘A first I saw you as a disrespectful person who was nagging me. Now I see that you’re upset because you’re in pain, and fearful of losing your connection with me. That changes everything.’

This will cause a shift in your relationship, draining the negativity that would otherwise fill the space between you.

So listen before talking.

2. Be curious rather than critical

One sure way to keep your partner in that uncooperative state is to criticize him for it.

Very often the reason a husband is not open to getting help is because he fears being railroaded into something that feels unsafe.

“But Chuck, I can’t help it. I just open my mouth and all these things I’m not happy about just come flooding out.”

“How can I not be critical when he’s being so difficult?”

This is where you should make curiosity your best friend.

It’s impossible to be curious and critical at the same time.

Being curious is one of the most powerful and pro-active things you can do for your relationship. That’s because curiosity helps regulate your emotions and makes the conversation safe for your partner.

Plus, when you are curious and stay curious you’ll actually find that your partner is far more interesting than you may have thought. That happens when you get curious and stay curious.

Still feel like you need to criticize?

Then it may be that you’re more frightened of intimacy than your partner.

Why do I say that?

I believe you when you say you want to work on the relationship, but you may be unconsciously maintaining your distance by criticism. Why? Your own fear of intimacy.

Whenever there is criticism the relationship is not safe. And distance is assured!

‘I want to work on our marriage but you don’t.’

‘I want to have sex and you don’t!’

Hey, someone is definitely not going to want to have sex with you if you approach it this way.

So what do I do?

Simply drop the criticism and be curious.

This will change the game!

Get curious about what’s going on and what’s making you feel disconnected. Say to your partner…

‘I don’t know what’s wrong but I’d like to learn from you. How could I be the kind of person with whom you’d want to be more romantic, make love, spend more time with?”

If I’m interested in you, really interested in you, not interrogating you, but really interested and curious about what’s inside of you, you’ll open up to me.

And when I listen to you and not try to change you, you’ll start liking me and not react to me.

“Chuck, I did all that, but it didn’t work”.

That’s because his defenses were activated. When that happens, nothing will work. So start over with #1 Listen Before Talking. Refuse to come up against his defenses. Once either of you are defensive, the conversation is no longer safe. So start over, make it safe, stay in dialogue.

Listen before you talk, be curious rather than critical, and things will begin to change!

This final step will seal the deal.

3. Share appreciations rather than complaints

When you’re grateful rather than complaining, negative energy is replaced by positive energy in the space between you.

This will make your partner want to work with you toward a better relationship.

So no matter how you are feeling about your partner, share with him three things you appreciate about him every day. Tell him some of the many things he’s doing well and what it means to you.

‘One thing I really appreciate about you is’¦’

‘When I experience that I feel’¦’

And if possible, relate it to your childhood.

‘When I feel that, it reminds me of when I was little and’¦

But will this really work???

The power of appreciation

There was a wife who went to counseling alone because her husband wasn’t interested in working on the relationship.

The counselor said, ‘Just tell him three times a day something you appreciate about him and see what happens.’

She said, ‘There is no way. There is nothing I appreciate about him. There is not one thing I can honestly say I appreciate about that man.’

‘Come on, you can think of something.’

‘Nope. There’s nothing.’

‘Oh come on think about it. Surely there’s something. One thing.’

‘Well’¦I guess you could say he’s good looking’¦even though to be honest I can’t stand to look at him right now.’

‘Well, just start with that. Just tell him.’

So she did. And, to her amazement, there was a surprising openness she hadn’t felt before. That compliment sat rather well with him.

So the next day she said, ‘You know, I appreciate the way you are with the kids. In our parenting, you bring to the table things that I don’t have. I appreciate that.’

And in those first few days she began to feel a subtle shift in the relationship.

Over the next couple of weeks, as she continued to express appreciation each day, two things began to happen.

First of all, the more things she shared that she appreciated, the more things she saw that she appreciated.
Second, as she shared things she appreciated about him, she began to notice him trying more and more to live up to those things that were being said about him.
Wow! Amazing!

And, in time, it completely transformed their relationship!

Affirmation and criticism cannot travel the same narrow pathways at the same time.

So push all the negative energy out of the space between you and your partner and watch your partner change and become open to working on the relationship with you!

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    Until next week!





















    Author: Chuck Starnes

    Chuck Starnes is a relationship coach who is passionate about helping couples find the safety, connection, passion and full-aliveness they are looking for together. He also helps organizations become more productive by improving relationship and communication skills.

    12 thoughts on “What if my husband is unwilling to work on our marriage?”

    1. Lisa McBirney says:

      Thanks for this, Chuck! I can see how curiosity for the purpose of understanding and enjoying your partner sends a powerful message of love. Our sinful tendency is to interrogate for the purpose of control which is probably driven by fear. Not only marriage relationships, but also parent-child relationships as well as friendships can benefit from this kind of curiosity.
      Thanks again for sending out this blog every week.

      1. Thanks Lisa. And thanks for the point you make about how this applies to our parenting and friendships, actually any relationship. Turning on your curiosity goes a long way toward making it safe for others to open up to you.

      2. Thanks for this insight Lisa. I like how you put it: “Curiosity…sends a powerful message of love.” And yes it also helps us regulate that tendency to “interrogate for the purpose of control”. Thanks for sharing this!

      3. Your article helped me see some of the tools I will use to help my husband and I communicate better. I also read the one about being different from eachother ( we really are). I thank God and counselors like you for helpful insights.

    2. Joanna Leggins says:

      Thanks Chuck, I so often have an agenda when we sit down to talk. A set apart time just for curiosity’s sake would probably be helpful in changing the climate. We have some very big issues to address, but help in creating a safe space for any conversation is good practice!

      1. You got it Joanna! The only thing keeping us from intimacy is our defenses. Once we eliminate that problem, there’s no limit to what can happen in a relationship.

    3. Rhiannon Mangrum says:

      going to try to really implement this! Please pray for us!
      Thanks for your blogs and insight, Chuck! ?

    4. Linda olson says:

      Chuck, such a good reminder to be a listener to what is being said and not take it personally. So hard to do !
      Not reacting to my husbands comments/ words, but take what is is saying, wait for what it all means to him, to hear his pain or not so good memories is being a good partner. These tools keep me coming back to sit, listen and get ready to learn something new that will make me a better wife to him.

      1. Yes, Linda it IS so hard to do. We all have childhood experiences and adaptations that raise our defenses and keep us from hearing and validating our partner. The problem is it all happens unconsciously and we’re in conflict before we know what hit us. Thanks for sharing your journey with us. Keep the conversation going. I’ve learned so much from your input!

      2. Thank you Linda. Yes listening without reacting is being a good partner. And I like what you say about learning something that makes you a better partner. It’s true. My struggle has been with the fact that my reactions are all unconscious until I become conscious of them. I’m growing in that but still find myself in reactive mode before I realize it. So we too keep using these tools to help!

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